Jan. 6, 2013
New Mexico Lobos Volleyball - 2012 Season Review.
By Richard Stevens - Senior Writer/GoLobos.com
In figuring out the most valuable personnel on the 2012 New Mexico Lobo volleyball team there are several names to toss out:
1. Chantale Riddle for her pure talent and all-around court production.
2. Miquella Lovato for her courageous back-court heroics.
3. Jordan Russell for extraordinary leadership.
4. Or maybe the Lobo team doctors and trainers.
There were tongue-in-cheek comments about how Yvonne Sanchez's team bus a season back had a red flasher on top and an orthopedic surgeon inside. There was too much truth to that statement to get too many chuckles out of the Lobos' women's basketball coach.
In the fall of 2012, Lobo Coach Jeff Nelson and his young volleyball team could have borrowed that same team bus and nobody would have given it a second thought (but maybe a second red flasher).
His team was hit hard by injury and it's a testament to his program -- and the 2012 team -- that these bruised and broken young Lobos hung in to produce a 20-win season.
It's not that these Lobos weren't talented enough to roll out that record and roll out a Johnson Center beating of Colorado State. Obviously, they were. However, the setbacks these Lobos took on the court due to injury and player loss bordered on downright cruelty - physically and maybe psychologically.
"There are only so many times kids can see it without it having a huge impact," said Nelson during the season after Ashley Newman was helped off the court after a season-ending knee injury.
Newman wasn't the first Lobo to be helped off the court. You probably would have to go back and look at film to accurately make that count. Heck, Lovato was lost once to food poisoning and once to a collision with a wooden bleacher in warm-ups.
The Lobos were down three players and two games when Colorado State came to visit and the Lobos rallied for the dramatic, Ram-stunning 3-2 win. UNM had to play the powerful Rams without Elsa Krieg, Ashley Kelsey and Sara Stelzer. Eventually, Nelson had about 25 percent of his roster on the permanently injured list.
"It would have been nice to have it all together all year and really see what we could do," said Nelson. "It's got to be pretty stressful when you are creating a lineup 30 minutes before a match. There was no question they (Lobos) were feeling everything that happened. It was tough on them, but they continued to work and show good character.
"You have to give these girls a lot of credit for their perseverance. It can be a little chaotic when lineups are constantly changing."
Nelson persevered, too. His Lobo fought. His Lobos won a lot of games. Sure, the injuries eventually were too critical and hurt UNM's won-lost record. But this was a young team that marched into the season with a whole lot of question marks simply because of their youth.
The 20-win season might have been an overachievement for a healthy Lobo squad. For a battered and bruised pack of young Lobos, it was an amazing season of accomplishment and gut checks. At one point, UNM was 17-4.
"Even with everyone healthy, I don't know if I'd have expected us to finish the way we did," said Nelson. "With everything we went through, it was kind of amazing."
There was more than a dash of "amazing" in UNM rolling to a 20-13 season because this team was extremely young before it became extremely beat up. The Lobos had one senior: Russell, whom Nelson called one of the more dynamic leaders he's ever had.
That leadership helped. Russell was part of the glue that kept this team focused, motivated and competitive.
And then there was Riddle.
"It's exciting what Chantale did," said Nelson. "Everybody looks at her kills and what she does offensively, but she does a lot of things well. Defensively, she has provided us with a lot of blocks and a lot of digs and she is just a sophomore.
"I think she is becoming the premier player of my time here. She is really stepping out. She is an amazing athlete and she is going to get better and better with maturity and playing experience. She did a really good job for us this season."
Of course, Riddle's task became harder and harder as the season progressed and Lobos went to the sidelines nursing injuries. Riddle was a target before the season. She became more of a target as it became obvious how big a load she was carrying for UNM.
"We asked a lot of her and she rose to every challenge," said UNM assistant coach Lisa Beauchene. "She just keeps getting better and better."
Riddle's stat line was sweet. She had 515 kills. The next Lobo on that list, Lena Skipper, had 233. Riddle averaged 4.19 kills per set. But the high-flying sophomore wasn't simply a net wonder on the attack side. She had 131 total blocks and 299 digs.
Yep, Riddle got dirty on defense. Her dig total was second on the team to Lovato's 465 digs. But Lovato's (a Libero) specialty on the court was digs. To put Riddle's all-around ability into perspective, note that Lovato had two kills and no blocks.
Riddle did it up front and high. She did it in the back and low.
"She had to battle all year and still put up big numbers for us and broke records," said Nelson. "There was no question she was one of the premier players in the conference this year."
Riddle and Lovato were the two Lobos named to the 15-player 2012 All-Mountain West Team. Lovato led the MW in digs-per-set with a 4.71 average in league games. Lovato missed five matches with her assortment of injuries but still soared to the No. 3 spot on the program's single-season dig list.
Lovato's single-game high in 2012 was 27, which she achieved twice -- first against Arkansas-Little Rock (Sept. 14) and then against Fresno State (Sept. 27). She was named to two all-tourney teams this past season.
Riddle led the MW in kills and points for all games and for MW games. Her 515 kills set the league's sophomore record and ranks her No. 2 in single-season kills at UNM and No. 4 in MW history. She was 13 kills sky of the Lobo record of 528. She set the UNM record for single-season points smashing the mark of two-time, First Team All-American Pauline Manser.
Riddle was a powerful weapon up front that the Lobos were wise to use often, but also forced to use often. She set the UNM and MW single-season record by taking 1,351 swings in 2012. There is a rumor floating around that Riddle's attacking arm is two inches longer than it was at the beginning of the season.
The honors that came to the talented UNM sophomore did not end with her All-MW selection. She also was named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association All-West Region first team; was named honorable mention All-American by the AVCA; and made the COBRA Magazine's All-National second team.
When the Mountain West names it's pre-season pick for 2013 Player of The Year, don't be surprised if a UNM junior falls into that pressure spot.
And don't be surprised if the young Lobos get healthy and challenge for the 2013 title.
The Lobos signed three New Mexico players to national letters of intent during the 2012 season: Cassie House, Devanne Sours and Julia Warren. "This is the best recruiting class we've had here and probably the best recruiting class to come out of the state of New Mexico," Nelson said.
The Lobos lost one senior from 2012 - Russell - and her spirit and leadership will be tough to replace. She also had 589 assists. Junior Ashley Newman will not return for her senior year in order to concentrate on school work and admittance into medical school.
You can't blame Nelson for wondering what kind of season his Lobos would have had in 2012 with a little bit more luck and a whole lot less of a run in with the injury bug. You can't blame him for looking ahead to 2013.
He returns so much - and adds a lot. UNM lost 6-foot outside hitter Ashley Kelsey to an ACL tear in the preseason. Nelson lost 6-foot-2 sophomore Elsa Krieg to an ACL 11 matches into the season. Freshman defensive specialist Sara Stelzer (concussion) never played and took a redshirt season.
It's likely that the adversity of 2012 helped the Lobos mesh as a team. The chemistry was pretty good, but maybe they had no other choice. There also were a lot of Lobos who stepped up. Lena Skipper had 233 kills and 273 digs. Alijah Gunsaulus had 218 kills and 279 digs. Skye Gullatt had 95 total blocks in only 86 sets played. Lexi Ross had 99 blocks, 179 kills and 104 digs. Hannah Johnson had 646 assists.
A lot of young Lobos were tossed deeper into the front line than what Nelson probably anticipated going into the season. They grew a lot. They return wiser and better. They get some help from players returning healthy and more help from first-year talent.
If the Lobos can ditch that team bus with the flasher on top, the season of 2013 should be a sweet ride.
Editor's Note: Richard Stevens is a former award-winning Sports Columnist and Associate Sports Editor at The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.